Towards a multipolar world order
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With the rise of countries like China, Russia and India, global power will become more diffuse. However, economic, financial and military power will be spread unevenly. This suggests that it could take a very long time before we reach a multipolar world order. As revisionist powers rise, shadow power grows and alliances become more ambiguous, the coming years will become fundamentally more unstable.

Observations

  • We have previously noted how hegemons have succeeded each other since the 15th century: the Italian city-states led by Genoa, the United (Dutch) Provinces, the United Kingdom and the United States. At the end of each cycle, there was a long period of a “dualism of power”, in which the hegemon was no longer powerful enough to dominate the system, but neither was there another country powerful enough (yet) to become dominant.
  • Several revisionist powers are shaking up their regions. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 – annexing Crimea, over which it has fought several wars throughout history (mainly with Turkey). In turn, Turkey is asserting its sovereignty over the eastern Mediterranean to the frustration of countries like Greece, Egypt, Cyprus and Israel. Meanwhile, India has upped its aggression in its border dispute with Pakistan as Modi began a process to revoke the autonomous status of the disputed territories of Jammu and Kashmir.
  • We have previously noted that after the age of city-states and nation-states, we are entering the age of continental politics. The most powerful countries of the 21st century (the U.S., China, Russia India, Indonesia, Brazil) are the size of continents. They have broad economic bases and their digital economies potentially have hundreds of millions of users. Internationally, their scale requires them to seek broad spheres of influence in order to protect their security.
  • We have previously noted that the process of globalization, by creating connections across borders that are hard to discern, makes it more likely that foreign strategic agendas are pursued through “shadow power”. It is a type of influence in which the intentions and goals are more subtle and unclear, such as Russia’s interference in the U.S. elections, Turkey’s mobilization of Turkish communities in different countries and Saudi Arabia’s funding of mosques in Pakistan (and elsewhere).
  • We have previously noted that among Asian countries, there is a growing policy of hedging, or “triangulation”, i.e. an attempt to create ties with both the U.S. and China, balancing them against each other and in this way extracting the maximum benefit for themselves.

Analysis

With the rise of countries like China, India, Russia, Turkey and Brazil, global power will spread across a wider range of countries. However, this does not mean that we will reach multipolarity soon. Theoretically, multipolarity refers to a distribution of power in which more than two states have nearly equal amounts of military, cultural, financial and economic influence. However, history suggests that the path towards a multipolar order will look very different.

Historically, periods of multipolarity have been rather unstable (even violent). What historically most closely resembles multipolarity are the “dualism of power” periods at the end of the hegemony of the Italian city-states, the United Provinces and the United Kingdom. Instead of a balanced equilibrium (suggested by the theory of multipolarity), these periods were characterized by protectionism and currency wars – and historically, all of them ended up in 30-year conflicts between different countries (the Thirty Years’ War, the Napoleonic Wars, the World Wars). Why exactly should we label these periods as “multipolar” – and what made them so unstable? They were multipolar because power was spread over several countries. However, rather than all countries balancing each other economically, military and financially (as suggested by the theory of multipolarity), different countries had different types of power. For instance, although the hegemon had already begun losing its economic and military dominance, it was still the undisputed financial superpower. There are two reasons why the world order became more unstable during these periods. First, as the hegemon lost its dominant position, opportunities rose for other countries and revisionist powers became more confident, shaking up regional dynamics (e.g. Russia, Turkey, and India now). Second, as the hegemon lost its dominant position, there was no country yet powerful enough to replace its dominance, and the hegemon used the (economic and financial) tools at hand to prevent others from growing more powerful (e.g. the U.S.-China trade war). Both developments led to highly unstable systems with more economic (and even military) conflict. What does this mean for the future?

All in all, before we reach a multipolar world order, we will see a period of growing uncertainty based on the rise of revisionist powers, the paranoia of the U.S. and growing ambiguity of conflict and cooperation

First, revisionist powers will increasingly ignite tensions. The growing assertiveness of countries like Russia, Turkey and India is the new normal. As they grow more powerful, these countries will seek to revise arrangements in order to reflect the new realities of power. Because these (continental) states seek broad spheres of influence, many places are at risk of destabilization. This does not mean that there will be permanent conflict: it is possible that frameworks like the agreement between Russia and Turkey in Libya will protect stability. However, tensions will flare up more often.

Second, one of the biggest risks is the growing paranoia of the hegemon (the U.S.). The current trade war has shown how destabilizing the policy of the (financial) hegemon becomes as it feels threatened by the rise of a rival. Historically, this has been the most important source of violent conflict. Indeed, the biggest source of uncertainty in the coming years is how the U.S. will react to the rise of China.

Third, the world order will become more ambiguous. Two developments deserve our attention. First, the growing use of shadow power will make conflict more unpredictable. With digital tools, states (and non-state actors) are manipulating each other in subtle ways. For example, Russian hackers have posed as Iranians to hit dozens of countries. Second, alliances will become more ambiguous. As regions become more economically complimentary and powerful countries emerge, alternatives for countries grow, making the continuous shifting of alliances more likely than the stable blocs of the 20th century.

All in all, before we reach a multipolar world order, we will see a period of growing uncertainty based on the rise of revisionist powers, the paranoia of the U.S. and growing ambiguity of conflict and cooperation. It is important to note that many tensions will not lead to conflict (e.g. posturing of regional powers, shadow power, shifting of alliances), although they could create an uncertain environment for firms and investors, as the coming years will become fundamentally more unstable.

Implications

  • Besides causing friction, revisionist powers will also boost global growth. Since the 2008 global financial crisis, China has been the primary engine of global growth. Now, as China slows down, so does growth. However, as several regional powers are emerging, they can become powerful engines of global growth in the coming years.
  • Although smaller countries seem at risk of suffering from global power dynamics, there are plenty of opportunities for them to remain influential within the global economy. First, they can engage with continental organizations (e.g. the EU, ASEAN) that can compete with continental states without losing their independence as small states by balancing carefully. Second, they can seek opportunities to “triangulate” between great powers as alliances become more ambiguous.